Wednesday, February 01, 2017

Gabon January 2017

From a chilly Heathrow to a cold Paris where the plane was de-iced, then on to steamy Libreville for my sixth Africa Cup of Nations.

For your correspondent it was a return visit having been present at the event in 2012 when it was shared with Equatorial Guinea.

On arrival, as is often the case, there was a scrum around the narrow passport/visa control area where much patience is needed while the authorities work the photocopiers.
After about an hour and half your visa is confirmed and you’re released into the terminal building.

Then the search is on for an ATM that a) works and b) has money.
If you’re lucky one or two may work and one may have a decent amount of cash.

One thing that does work at these events is the provision of volunteers of which there are many including one or two that speak English.
So guidance is plentiful, up to a point.

I’d booked a hotel in the Louis quarter and this was easily reachable, for a group of us, from the airport.
So began this trip to Gabon.

14th January  Gabon 1 Guinea-Bissau 1  Libreville c. 32,000

Its usually wise to arrive early for these games involving the hosts in light of the inevitable traffic issues.
And so I did.

That meant you could watch the crowds gradually arriving, streaming in from the police roadblock areas.
Plus there is the Opening Ceremony which was fairly modest although the aerial acrobats were impressive as (I assume) were the African rap stars.
That pounding, insistent, music went on a bit too long for my tastes but it got the crowd in the mood.

Perhaps President Ali Bongo was enjoying it as well, he was there to open the event.

This initial match had paired the Leopards with newcomers Guinea-Bissau in typically hot conditions.
Gabon included their most famous player, the much coveted Dortmund striker Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, Juve’s Lemina and Sunderland’s Didier Ndong, the latter duo with bleached hair.
Their opponents had to make do with a contingent mostly from the lower levels of the Portuguese league.

However they would more than hold their own in a cautious first half of very limited chances.

Into the second half and the match needed a goal.
It came after a cross from the right found Aubameyang and he converted from close range for the opening goal.
Noise levels increased significantly.

Optimism spread but as the half wore on Guinea edged nearer the home goal.
First through headers then via free kicks.
Backing off, ultimately, Gabon conceded one

too many of those and a well-directed cross allowed Juary Soares to glance in a superb headed leveller.

That certainly deflated the home support.
However a reasonable number, many of whom received free tickets, stayed for game 2 of this double header.

8pm  Burkina Faso 1 Cameroon 1

It began with a misstep by the organisers with a long delay before any anthems were played.
The Burkina fans lost patience and sang it themselves.
When something was finally played the teams were posing for photos.

It was Burkina who had the well known names including past star Pitroipa plus a bunch of Traore’s.
While Cameroon, who had to regroup after a large number of withdrawals and retirements, fielded a mostly unfamiliar lineup.

But it was the Indomitable Lions who would dominate the first period going ahead when Benjamin Moukandjo neatly delivered a free kick from the edge of the area.
They could have added a second when a breakaway left a forward through on goal but keeper Koffi produced a telling block.

As the match moved into the second half Cameroon remained mostly in control but they continued to spurn chances with Clinton N’Jie one of the guilty parties.
And the Burkinabe always threatened from set plays.
Eventually a mistake by goalie Ondoa would present Dayo with a close range return header to level the contest.

The draw came at a cost for the Stallions who lost Pitroipa and a Traore to injuries.

Then the main issue was getting a lift back to the centre of town, which we did with an auditor from Ernst & Young (as you do)
A beer and some chips were taken in the Louis quarter afterwards.

7th January  Ghana 1 Uganda 0  Port-Gentil c. 15,000

Its possible to get the ferry from the capital to Port-Gentil but I chose the air route, which comprises a short thirty minutes aloft.
There is no viable land route.

Once there you get met by the usual gang of volunteers.
They had never heard of my booked ‘hotel’ and hence suggested an alternative in the same ‘Grand Village’ area of town.
Which is somewhat less grand than it sounds.
The facilities did feature wi-fi but only a postage stamp sized towel.

However in the heat most things dry quickly anyway.

I spent some time doing a quick tour and discovered a limited number of higher end hotels (one was closed for refurbishment) and apparently not much else to see.

Taking a taxi to the stadium you soon realise its well out of town, like all the others.
But once there you’re in a nice looking single tier ground, but with a significant fault.

This first encounter matched the well-known names from Ghana against a Uganda side playing in its first AFCON since the 1970’s.
They did however have Mamelodi Sundowns award winning star Denis Onyango in goal.

From the start Ghana dominated but they spurned chances before a dubious looking penalty enabled Dede Ayew to confidently put the Black Stars in front.
Uganda had just the one significant attacking moment when Miya went close.

But eventually it was clear that the Port-Gentil pitch was very poor leaving Baba Rahman with an injury that would put him out of the event.
On a positive note Christian Atsu starred for Ghana proving very tricky for the Ugandan defenders to contain.

As the match progressed to the second period Uganda managed a set play threat as Ghana tended to consolidate.
Then Atsu produced one last move late on but Onyango saved.

In the end the Ayew pen. was enough to take the points.

17th January  Mali 0 Egypt 0

We began the second game with a good contingent of Mali fans making themselves heard in the stadium.
But it was the introduction of legendary goalie El Hadary, now aged 44, that made many headlines.
He replaced the starting keeper who sadly received an injury.
A theme that continued on the atrocious pitch.

It also affected the quality of the entertainment although a move between Arsenal’s El Neny and Mohamed Salah showed promise.
Ultimately the game mostly drifted towards a stalemate despite a late flourish from Mali.

Getting away from the stadium with one exit road proved typically hair raising.
Your correspondent managed to get a lift with someone from the media catering who maneuvered into position behind the team’s buses convoy and we raced through the throng with sirens blaring.
After that I calmed down with a double Campari outside in the dark African night.

18th January  Gabon 1 Burkina Faso 1  Libreville c. 25,000

Then a return to the capital to see the hosts play their second match.
This time before a fairly sparse crowd although many arrived late for this 5pm start.

Gabon began brightly, hitting the bar early.
However a shock came on 21 minutes when sub. Prejuce Nakoulma managed to muscle himself away from two defenders and slip the ball past the home goalie.
This stunned the home fans.

But some redemption came 15 minutes later when the speedy Aubameyang was set free, only to be brought down by the BF goalie.
The Dortmund striker took the kick himself and easily levelled the scores.
That certainly raised the noise levels.

Meanwhile in the half-time break Salif of Burkina, dressed as a stallion, received the ‘fan of the match award’.

And his team would often look the more likely to score in the second period with Diawara and Bertrand Traore threatening.
However the match ended with the Leopards on top only to be repelled by Koffi in the Burkina goal.

So Gabon had begun with two draws.

18th January  Cameroon 2 Guinea-Bissau 1

With each match in this group finishing 1-1 many might have bet on a similar outcome and for a while that looked likely.

Early on the well supported Indomitable Lions pressed towards the G-B goal.
But on 12 minutes a stunning strike from Piqueti Djassi meant the underdogs went ahead.
The Braga B player cut inside and delivered an unstoppable drive to set the crowd buzzing.

Then the encounter settled into a pattern of mostly Cameroon attacks and often dangerous G-B breakaways.
The newcomers managed to stay ahead up until the interval.

They might even have added another but a Cameroon defender got back to clear a chip off the line.

Gradually Cameroon opened up more space and they restored the ‘natural order’ with two neat strikes from Clovis Siani and Michael Ngadeu.
It was the expected result but G-B fans will never forget that superb goal by Djassi

Another ride back followed, slightly easier than before with less fans departing.

22nd January  Gabon 0 Cameroon 0  Libreville c. 35,000

And, after a break in a hotel in the Marina area of the city, so we came to the final group games and a crucial night for the hosts.
The anthems rang out and the noise stepped up a few notches.

Watched by the largest crowd on a steamy night Gabon set about the task of winning
at a very fast pace, soon testing Ebogo in the Cameroon goal.
He made one early error but soon recovered and after that stayed very solid.

Then on four minutes the moment came that would haunt the home team.
With Gabon stretching their opponents down the left Ze Ondo produced a fine cross leaving Aubameyang with a relatively easy finish at the far post.
But he fluffed the chance, the ball went wide and ultimately Gabon’s chances went south.

Though the excellent Bouanga would test Ebogo later on it was Cameroon who then had more of the play.
After the interval that trend continued as the news came through that Burkina were beating Guinea-Bissau in the other match.

Time ticked on, Gabon made changes, but the Indomitable Lions stayed indomitable.

But there was one final twist in the closing minutes when Bouanga found space to shoot only for his effort to rebound off the post and then the follow up was well blocked by Ebogo.
So the Cameroon players celebrated while the Gabonese sunk to the turf, their fans heading for the exits with mixed feelings.

I joined them getting a lift in a 4 x 4 that had to battle through the masses eventually getting me back to quarter Louis around 1.5 hours later.
Reflection afterwards was contemplated with some Campari while watching a replay of the match on TV.

23rd January  Tunisia 4 Zimbabwe 2  Libreville  1800

As always when the hosts depart these events and with limited support for the other countries you get a downturn.
It happened with a vengeance here with less than 2000 turning up for this match in a stadium that can hold 42,000.
An early storm shower would also have dampened their enthusiasm.

Those that stayed away missed six goals and a fine performance by the North Africans.

Tunisia soon set about the Zim rearguard with Khazri prominent in their attacks.

Within 23 minutes they were 2-0 ahead through a deflected Sliti effort and a right footer by Msakni.
It already looked over for Mugabe’s boys.
Khazri again tested the Zim goalie before Khenissi added a third.

There was some brightness for Zim when Knowledge Musona held off a defender and shot past Jeridi.
However straight after that the outcome was decided when a penalty was awarded for a push and Khazri duly got his deserved goal for a 4-1 halftime advantage.

The second was ‘won’ by Zim who scored a fine combination goal, involving Billiat, and finished by sub. Ndoro.
Tunisia should certainly have scored more, missing a number of chances but they had done enough to meet Burkina in the quarters.
Khama Billiat, Zim’s outstanding player showed neat touches and a range of passes but for many he would be too lightweight (eg the Premier League)

Altogether it had been a slightly surreal atmosphere, almost ‘behind closed doors’,  but we were well entertained.

4th January  Ivory Coast 0 Morocco 1   7742  Oyem

Getting to Oyem, in the north of Gabon, was somewhat different starting with a flight to Mongomo in Equatorial Guinea then a walk across the tarmac to a military style helicopter (get in quick to grab a seat) for the twenty minute flight to Oyem airport.
Which is not the biggest

I had arranged for a contact to pick me up and take myself and a colleague to my lodging (the renowned Pam Pam hotel - condom and bible supplied)
And from there on through the jungle to the stadium.

Which presents an attractive image on a rise above the road level and equally fine inside based on a single tier with curving roofs.
Thankfully for the locals there was a decent supply of transport.

So good numbers turned out on a milder (for Gabon) evening with the moths flying around the seats.
The holders had reasonable numbers of fans and they put out a formidable looking starting eleven including the likes of Bony, Kalou, Aurier, Bailly, Zaha and Serey Die.    

But their efforts floundered against Herve Renard’s well organised Moroccans.
The North Africans ceded possession up to a point then stalled their opponent’s  progress when they got too close.
Ultimately the plan worked a treat.

Though IC did threaten through Zaha and Bony it was Morocco who went closest in the first period when Fajr shot a free kick against the bar.
Zaha would soon realise how tough these Nations Cup can be and he looked frustrated at times.

With DRC two up in the other game a win for IC was now crucial.
But it was not to be.

The denouement came when the ball reached sub. Alioui in space, he paused for a split second then delivered a fine chip over Gbohouo for the winner.
The game got tetchy later and though Bony had another header and coach Dussuyer made some belated changes it always seemed that the Atlas Lions would prevail.

So the holders departed.

Back at the Pam Pam we listened to the African rap whilst drinking some local beer.

28th January  Burkina Faso 2 Tunisia 0  Libreville c. 9,000

Following an agonisingly long wait at the spartan Oyem airport (no catering at all, chickens and dogs roaming) I eventually made it back to Libreville.
I relaxed for a couple of days, had a nice Vietnamese meal in the Louis quarter and awaited the quarter finals.

The first of which took place at the very familiar Stade L’Amitie.

Sadly not too many locals bothered to attend but there were sizeable numbers of Burkinabe fans spread around the ground.
At least they made plenty of noise, particularly later on.

This became a very watchable encounter which you could perhaps characterise as the power of Burkina against the more subtle skills of Tunisia.

Early on it was the Tunisians who held sway with striker Khenissi having a couple of half chances.
But it was the West Africans who eventually came closest through Nakoulma and Bertrand Traore.

The half ended goalless but with four bookings.

At that stage it could have gone either way.
That trend continued well into the second period before a substitution altered matters.
Much to the joy of his many fans on came cult hero Aristide Bance for the Burkinabe.

And within minutes he had decided the outcome, driving in a free kick from the edge of the area.
Tunisia immediately pressed forward only for them to be exposed with everyone upfield when the move broke down.
That left Prejuce Nakoulma on his own, he managed to evade Mathlouthi and slide the ball into the empty net to spark many celebrations amongst the Burkina players and fans.
It had been a victory for power over subtlety.

And a masterstroke from the coach and his emissary Mr Bance.

Back via a lift in a pickup myself and my colleague from Aberdeen found a conducive restaurant , perused the wine menu and settled down to watch Cameroon beat (my favourites) Senegal.
The apple pie and ice cream took quite a while but we had time with extra time and penalties.

That was my final match at AFCON 2017 as I departed for Paris, on a very sparsely filled flight, the following evening.

So to reflect on this return trip to Gabon.

Firstly the football featured typically competitive matches, and some fine goals,  though without the really memorable encounters from 2012.
Obviously it didn’t help that the hosts failed to win.

In general there were no major issues only the usual transport hurdles (getting away from the stadiums + a long wait at Oyem airport)

Libreville, as in the country itself, remains seriously underdeveloped though without the chaotic traffic conditions of many other African capital cities.
Getting around is easy enough with plentiful taxis.

Inevitably your correspondent concentrated on football but outside of that it would need some persistence and resources to seek out the other attractions - the lagoons, national parks and isolated, pristine beaches.

Having said that the people, in what is ‘real Africa’, are relatively relaxed and accommodating.
However being so reliant on oil means many were less prosperous than previously.

Though it wouldn’t feature high up on many people’s list of countries to visit (I did meet a German doctor who was very keen to see Albert Schweitzer’s famous hospital in Lamberene), and I may never go there again, Gabon will always feature in my memories of Africa.

And it certainly reignited my interest in seeing more of this fascinating continent.

1 comment:

snakecharmer said...

Hi John,

It was great meeting you, and I really enjoyed reading your report on Gabon.
You'll find mine on facebook at